How to survive Christmas with an eating disorder
(Content warning: calorie numbers and diet descriptions)
It’s just one day.
That’s what I keep telling myself. That’s what my parents and my doctors have been saying for months. One day, out of the 4,000 I’ve lived through so far. 0.025% of my twelve-year-long life.
It’s nothing. A blip. A freckle on the surface of the moon.
Plus, it’s not even a whole day. As I’ve lost weight, I’ve slept more and more. I go to bed at 10, and get up at 8. Bingo: the worst day of my life so far just got cut in half.
And really, it’s only the bit in the middle that I’m worried about. The bit that everyone else likes best: Christmas dinner.
It’s just one day. One meal. It’s nothing.
But however much I say it, the fear doesn’t go away.
In the UK today, there are 725,000 people living with an eating disorder. Chances are, you know at least one, even if you don’t know you know them.
When I say ‘eating disorder’, you probably picture a teenage girl, maybe a ballet dancer. Trust me: there are plenty of boys, too. There are builders and accountants and grandmothers and policemen. People with eating disorders are as varied as people. Mental illness laughs at the boxes we try to stuff it into.
The symptoms vary, too. Some of those 725,000 people will be dangerously thin. Some will be, clinically speaking, overweight. Some will keep a food diary, correct to the nearest calorie, with line items as trivial as Tic Tacs. Others will try desperately not to know.
But whoever they are, wherever they come from, whatever their unique fingerprint of distress, those people have something in common.
They’re terrified of big occasions. Of attention. Of social pressure.
Which means they’re terrified of Christmas.
My mum, dad and siblings all know the drill. They won’t ask awkward questions. They’ll leave me to it.
But my grandmother doesn’t. My grandmother won’t.
We don’t see her that often. I’ve only been ill for a few months, and no one’s brought her up to speed. In her mind, I’m still a growing boy. All grandsons, in the minds of their grandparents, are growing boys. Even 40 year-old men.
So I’ve made a list. I’ve written down all the questions and comments I fear most. Rehearsed them, rolled them around inside my head, to wear down their spiky edges.
There’s barely anything on that plate.
A few extra potatoes won’t hurt you.
You can take one day off, can’t you?
People with eating disorders plan and prepare obsessively. What will I eat today? When will I exercise? When will I throw up? We make lists and charts and tables. We comfortably outperform the general population on the numbers round of Countdown, and often give cashiers exact change.
Even so, we worry. We worry about everything we can find to worry about. And if, by some miracle, there’s nothing for us to worry about, we start worrying about what we might have forgotten.
Part of what makes Christmas so difficult is the lack of structure. It’s a freeform holiday: there’s nothing on your agenda but eating, drinking, and being merry. And if you have an eating disorder, you’re terrible at all three.
You do your best. You lock down every detail you can. You check the packets of the party food when you go to the supermarket, in case someone springs a vol au vent on you, and you’re not sure what the damage will be.
Unfortunately, Christmas is predicated on surprise. Surprise presents, surprise ingredients. The joy of living in the moment. As it turns out, not everyone finds spontaneity terrifying.
You want to get into the spirit. But every neuron in your body is wired a different way.
The main course is OK, because I’m in control. When Dad’s serving up, I go into the kitchen and help him prepare my plate.
75g of turkey. Two roast potatoes, one roast parsnip. Five sprouts. A grand total of 288 calories.
We carry the plates through together. And it’s OK. No one asks any questions, not even my grandmother. We just sit down, say Merry Christmas to each other, and start eating.
Then, twenty minutes later, it’s time for pudding.
“Who wants Christmas pudding?” Dad says, as he brings it in: a giant ball of calories, burning blue, with a sprig of holly on the top. Everyone cooes.
Part of me wants to say no. To have something else instead. Usually, I weigh everything before I eat it, on scales that go down to a hundredth of a gram, so I know exactly what I’m getting.
But I don’t want to make a fuss. And I don’t want to miss out.
People think anorexics hate food, but they don’t. They hate eating. And that little difference makes all the difference in the world.
I nod. Dad digs in with a huge spoon, and doles me out what he thinks is a small portion.
And I don’t know what to do.
So I get up, turn around, and run.
That was 1999. Now, it’s almost 17 years later. I’m still here. And these days, I can’t wait for Christmas.
Some people recover from eating disorders quickly. For others, it takes decades. And tragically, around 20% of sufferers die: a breathtaking number, far higher than for any other mental illness.
I was lucky, relatively speaking: my anorexia lasted about a year. And now, 17 years later, I feel strong enough to think about it, and talk about it. I want to tell people what helped, and what didn’t.
In particular, I think about Christmas, 1999. How should someone with an eating disorder deal with their worst nightmare? I can only answer for myself. But maybe, just maybe, that answer will help someone else.
This isn’t about recovery. Recovery is a winding path, different for everyone, and I don’t feel remotely qualified to tell you what you’ll find there.
This is about surviving the days between late December and early January; the days when people come together, and things come to a head.
Eight ways to survive Christmas
- Make a plan, and stick to it.
You’re good at making plans. You do it every hour of every day. And at Christmas, you can use the weapons your disease has honed against it.
Structure your day. Decide when you’re going to exercise, if that’s your thing, and stick to the time limit you set yourself.
Decide what you’re going to eat. If you’re going to treat yourself, choose things that you come in manageable portions, not big tubs of Quality Street.
- Use your family and friends.
A plan only works if other people are in on it. That can be hard, depending on your situation. And sharing doesn’t come naturally to people with eating disorders. But having an ally really can help.
They don’t necessarily have to be there. They can be on the other end of a phone. But try to pick someone you can talk to as you go. Don’t pick someone in Australia, who’ll be asleep when you need them.
At Christmas, people eat things they don’t eat at any other time of year. And they eat in a different way, too — they graze on party food at 3pm, and have chocolate for breakfast. If you have an eating disorder, that can be scary, because you’re not used to it.
Practising can help. Try eating the foods you’ll eat on Christmas Day before Christmas Day. Try snacking. If you have guests on the day itself, rehearsing the whole meal beforehand can really help.
- Change the conversation.
It’s easy to feel as though every festive conversation is about food. What you’re having for Christmas dinner. Whether you’re a Roses family, or a Quality Street one. How big a turkey you need for fifteen people, and how long you need to cook a turkey that big for.
It makes you feel sick. It made me feel sick. And in January, when everyone’s talking about resolutions and diets, it’s every worse.
But you can change the conversation. You can ask your family not to talk about food, or make a list of other topics to bring up when your aunt starts loudly contemplating her fourth mince pie. Favourite Christmas movies. The book you just finished, and how much your brother would or wouldn’t like it. The average lifespan of an earthworm.
- Give yourself a way out.
If you’re planning to go out to a social event, have an escape plan — both before you go, in case you change your mind, and when you’re there.
When I want to bail on something, I say, ‘I’m sorry. I wish I could be there, but I can’t.’ If you keep it vague, people are less likely to ask questions.
- Enjoy yourself.
A weird part of having a disorder is the guilt you feel about almost everything. About not doing your homework immediately, or not spending time enough time with your friends, or a million other things you wind yourself up about.
Well Christmas, if it’s about anything, is about doing your thing. That might mean shutting yourself in your bedroom and listening to death metal, or drawing, or playing video games. Make sure there’s time in your plan for whatever you like doing, and try not to feel guilt about doing it.
- Accept that you’ll make mistakes.
This is the most important one.
When I ran out on Christmas dinner, I was convinced I’d ruined Christmas for everyone. But if I asked my family about it today, I doubt they’d even remember it. At most, they’d remember it as a tiny hiccup during a difficult time, not as the earth-shattering incident I remember it as.
Most people argue at Christmas. Lots of people cry. Billions of people celebrate Christmas every year, and none of them has ever had a perfect day. If things go wrong, it’s OK. If you cry, or someone else cries, it’s OK. Take some time, and start over.
- Remember, it only lasts a day.
I’m now 28. At this point, Christmas Day 1999 represents less than 0.001% of my life.
That didn’t make it any less painful at the time. But it’s worth remembering that, no matter how bad it is, it’s temporary.
Tomorrow you’ll wake up and think to yourself, I made it. And then you’ll get on with the rest of your life.
Thanks for reading this piece. If you liked it, please hit ‘recommend’. And if you know anyone who might find any of this useful, or just comforting, please share it with them.
If you need help or advice about your or someone else’s eating disorder, please, please ask your doctor, or get in touch with BEAT.